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Finding a solution to an overwhelming need

Partners for World Health tackles the big problems one small step at a time.

PORTLAND, Maine — It was a job overseas, fresh out of nursing school, that opened Elizabeth McLellan’s eyes to the disparity in medical care around the world. She traveled to places like the Philippines, India, and Sri Lanka. “I was walking through wards of people that were 10 inches away from each other on these beds, no bed sheets, broken beds, not enough syringes, not enough sterile gloves. It impacted me so dramatically I said, ‘Someday, when I go home I’m going to figure this out.’ And that’s what I did.”

What she figured out was that in the United States we throw away medical supplies at an alarming rate. She returned to Maine, and while working at a hospital, began to ask for donations of unused, discarded medical supplies – anything that remains in a room when a patient is discharged. “Everything that’s left behind goes to the trash – it’s not sorted, in any hospital in any state, in our whole country. It just automatically goes to the trash.”

She educated the nurses and housekeeping staff to set the items aside. For a year and a half, she gathered these donations, storing them in her house. When she filled nearly every room with 11,000 pounds of discarded medical supplies, it was time to move the operation to a bigger home. That was ten years ago; three moves later Partners for World Health has five warehouses of goods. “When I started this I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t sit down and write a business plan. I just kept moving down the road.”

All of the donated goods are unused. Some of the product is expired. Some have just been replaced by newer versions. All of it is still very much use-able. For developing countries, these supplies are exactly what they need.

They now collect from hospitals and medical practices throughout New England. Not just tape and gauze -- operating tables, EKG machines, anesthesia machines come their way as well. Goods are sorted in to bins by hundreds of volunteers. A container will hold roughly $250,000 to $300,000 worth of unused medical supplies and cost anywhere from $18,000 to$ 25,000 to ship. The partners they work with must contribute to some or all of the shipping costs. “It’s very important to me that when organizations come to us for medical supplies, that they have their skin in the game. And so they have to put money in to the game. And if they don’t, then they don’t really own it,” say McLellan.

Partners for World Health currently ships about 12 containers a year – and sometimes sends doctors, nurses, and students who provide medical services. They travel to places like Turkey, Liberia, and Uganda. The need is endless, and at times overwhelming. They have made many return trips to countries and established relationships with some patients they see year to year. One of those communities is in Senegal, where they provide medical care to the fish ladies, women living on the beach and gutting fish for a living. On their last trip there, a patient returned to the clinic to show Elizabeth the records she had kept about her blood sugar. “So she was there to say thank you. For taking care of me. Because if I hadn’t come to your clinic, then I wouldn’t have known that I had diabetes…so that was really heartwrenching because you realize that something so little is making such a huge difference in people’s lives. So little.”

Partners for World Health continues to dream big, and their work – and impact – is felt in many corners of the world. They are currently on a medical mission to Bangladesh – educating and training nurses and nursing students there in two different hospitals, and providing primary care services for workers in a brothel. They also work with over 100 social service agencies right here in Maine and New Hampshire to distribute some of the supplies they collect closer to home. If you would like to learn more about this organization or find out ways to become involved, you can visit their website at https://www.partnersforworldhealth.org/.